Robert Sawatzky
Sep 18, 2017

The old refrain: stereotypes about ageing employees

Are older workers really as technologically inept and resistant to change as they're made out to be?

The old refrain: stereotypes about ageing employees

As an elder member of Campaign Asia’s editorial team, I have on occasion had some mild professional ribbing about my pop culture deficiencies and slower navigation of some technology tools. It doesn’t bother me…yet.

But ask me again in 10 years and my skin is likely to be thinner as my hair becomes greyer. That’s because stereotypes of older professionals do matter. Those in their 50s and 60s fight an uphill battle when it comes to hireability

It’s not hard to see why either, if stereotypes about older professionals are carried to their extreme. Who would want to employ technologically inept, overpaid, low energy, change-resistant employees who lack fresh ideas?

But is this picture a true refection of what older marketing professionals do or don’t bring to the table? Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common stereotypes and how much salt to take with them:

Older employees are bad with technology

The older we are, statistically the less computer-literate we tend to be. A Hong Kong study published in the June 2015 Asian Journal of Gerontology & Geriatrics unambiguously concluded that those aged 65+ “regardless of income or educational background, are among the least likely to be computer and Internet users.”

But getting a gauge on the computer literacy of older working professionals aged 50+ is much harder to conclude definitively.

“It is true that older workers tend to struggle at the beginning," says Janice Chia, founder and managing director of consultancy Ageing Asia in Singapore, “but once they are taught well, they are able to adopt new technologies.”   

“We do see it,” says Adam Toctan, the managing director of MCG Associates for APAC in Hong Kong, a recruiter filling positions of all ages and skill levels. “The older generation are going to be less tech savvy, less up to date on trends but it depends who you’re talking to.”

When it comes to professionals keeping up with technology and work tools, Toctan says he’s less concerned with age, and more concerned with workers who have been unemployed for a prolonged period, who more easily fall out of touch with the latest industry tools and trends than older professionals who stay on the job.

In the marketing and advertising space specifically, technology skills are quite important, requiring a mid-to-high degree of computer literacy.

Millennials, who are more likely to be ‘early adopters’ of technology, are attractive to agencies, says Pully Chau, group chief operating officer at Cheil Greater China. “They are just intuitive with multiple devices,” she says. In contrast, “some senior people do have a psychological barrier in picking up hi-tech knowledge.” 

Dave McCaughan, ‘storyteller’ at Bibliosexual and a former top strategy planner at McCann, offers another view. His new firm, Ai.agency, involves senior partners who were the first users of social media and helped create commercial wifi systems.

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“When we talk about digital natives it’s sometimes confusing,” McCaughan says. “The misbelief of course is that they haven’t grown up with it their whole life or they don’t use a ton of social media platforms. That may be true in some cases and not in others.”

“It is a personal barrier – we can’t just over-generalize it to be a 50+ issue,” agrees Chau.

HR departments may not want to generalize, but they’re also likely to take special care when introducing new work technology to older employee groups.

When IPG Mediabrands shifted from offline to digital planning several years ago it encountered an older group of very loyal employees in Thailand who faced an extensive training program. For them, APAC HR director Zarka Khan-Iltaf explains, “adoption and resistance to technology was something we had to deal with.” While some recognized business demands were changing, others held out, despite attempts to make them more comfortable.  

“They were not made to feel incompetent,” Khan-Iltaf said, “but of course there was fear and that’s where most of the resistance comes around.” 

The way companies implement new technology also plays a role. “I’ll be honest, some of the technology we’ve introduced has been seamless and user friendly, some has been clunky and awful,” admits Khan-Iltaf.  So training and support play a key role for all ages, she adds.

Our view: Saying ‘older employees tend to be less savvy with newer technology’ would be more accurate, yet there’s a nugget of hard truth behind this.

Older employees lack new ideas and hold back disruption

Measuring creativity with spreadsheets may seem paradoxical, but that hasn’t stopped behaviouralists.

US psychologist Dean Keith Simonton used statistical averages to determine that if creativity is measured by “productivity or by making original and valuable contributions to science and art… output first increases in our mid-20s, climaxes around our late 30s or early 40s, and then undergoes a slow decline as we age.” At 80, we’re still creatively productive, he says, but only at about half the level at our peak.

But the good news is that there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that creativity does not necessarily decline with age. Much depends on how receptive we stay to new influences.

The old saying goes “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But maybe that’s because you’ve trained the dog to keep doing the same tricks for the same rewards, over and over.

“Let’s think about the situation most older people have been in,” McCaughan says. He argues that stereotype has largely come from companies or organizations with rigid top-down structures where for decades employees were not encouraged to be disruptive and therefore need help in generating ideas.

“I do see and have experienced that [older workers] tend to respect hierarchy and traditional working approaches,” Chia says. But that doesn’t mean older employees are unwilling to adapt.

More on this subject? 

Ageism in the advertising world is Campaign Asia-Pacific's 'Front and Centre' theme throughout September. Look out for articles addressing the issue from different angles over the coming weeks, or click the links below for published stories. 

The marketing industry is also a special beast, one can argue, which has always had a insatiable appetite for new ideas, not only in creative agencies. New ideas and brainstorming sessions have been part of most advertising and marketing jobs for years.

And the recipe for good ideation, many have argued, is a diverse mix including multigenerational teams.

Khan-Iltaf says older employees have not lacked creative contributions on such teams. “If anything, we look to the experienced individuals who have prior knowledge and gravitas when you get those new ideas [to determine] the execution and how reasonable and feasible they are.”

McCaughan seconds the notion that older voices are crucial to making good ideas better since they can use their experience to find gaps in the market. But too often, any cautionary notes are turned quickly against older employees.

Case in point, McCaughan says, was his recent conversation with near-retirees in Japan. “Their greatest frustration was the number of times they have been told that when they pointed out an idea was good but could be improved using X, Y, Z they were told they were being negative.”

Our view: In an industry that thrives on new ideas and spotting disruption, older workers still contribute significantly to the process. This sterotype doesn’t hold up. 

Older managers fear change and favour the status quo 

If older employees have more experience to point out the potential downsides of a new idea, it’s easy to see how this next stereotype relates. Those who raise caution are accused of applying the brakes and resisting change altogether. Past experience may teach some older managers that risks outweigh the rewards of taking a new approach. For others, changing the way they’ve run things for the past 20 years could leave the impression that they’ve been doing things the wrong way.

Swiss researchers who studied “Age, resistance to change, and job performance” concluded in the Journal of Managerial Psychology that this prejudice was inaccurate, based on their study of more than 750 workers. “In fact, older employees still being active in the workforce...tended to report slightly higher openness to change than their younger colleagues.”

But the stereotype, the authors felt, not only existed, but helped fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy that could in turn lead to discrimination and hurt company performance. “Older employees, who are often explicitly or implicitly confronted with the stereotype that they are not willing to support organizational change initiatives, may sooner or later simply believe what they are told and accept this role,” they wrote.

At IPG, Khan-Iltaf says she hasn’t experienced older managers who don’t want to push through change. Instead she sees far more cultural differences in the way management approaches organizational change throughout Asia. Malaysian managers, for instance, might be more consultative than Chinese managers who may need to be directive to get the same results, versus Japan, where deferential employees might respond more quickly to instructions.

“Age is not the barrier,” says Pully Chau at Cheil. “The core is in people’s attitude and intensity in embracing change.”  The stubborn managers she remembers were actually younger, in their 30s and early 40s, with fixed mindsets bent on protecting their power.

Regardless of age, she says “we definitely need more of the change agent type of people leading the revolution of the industry.” 

Recruiting firms are sensing that need for change agents, and many see it tied to new breed of younger managers.

“There’s a level of willingness to be open and listen to people’s ideas and to maybe act on those ideas,” says Toctan at MCG & Associates. “The older generation of talent tend to get stuck in their ways a little bit. I think they find change harder to adapt to,” Toctan says. “Clients are cautious of that.”

On the flipside, Toctan adds those older managers who are able to adapt will not only bring more experience, but also more stability to their roles.

Our view: Older managers may want to proceed with caution where younger managers want to proceed and learn. But few lobby for the status quo at any age.

Older workers lack energy

Let’s set aside the whole issue of physical decline with ageing.

The type of energy under scrutiny here is work-related: how much effort is put into work and how productive employees are with age. 

Economists have been quick to link ageing populations worldwide to a drag on productivity and economic growth rates, including markets like Japan and China.

Source: IMF regional outlook for Asia Pacific (April 2017)

The IMF’s April 2017 regional economic outlook for Asia-Pacific cited several studies that found worker productivity and innovation begins to decline between the ages of 50 and 60. 

Few such studies focus strictly on office-based professionals, but we do know that more developed, knowledge-based APAC economies like Australia and Singapore recorded a smaller decrease in productivity with age than less-developed, labour-based economies like Thailand and Vietnam (see chart below).

Source: IMF regional outlook for Asia Pacific (April 2017)

In the marketing and advertising business, however, issues of output and productivity are inevitably tied to issues surrounding hours worked and overtime. McCaughan says many Asian markets like Hong Kong harbour stubborn myths that unless you’re working 80 hours a week you’re not showing enough enthusiasm or effort. 

Younger workers without families may be able to put in longer hours when necessary. Whether or not such hours are used efficiently, older workers are less likely to be lauded for such zeal. On the flipside, Janice Chia at Ageing Asia argues older workers tend to be more punctual at work with good attendance records.

Khan-Iltaf says family and ‘work-life balance’ are definitely a larger consideration for older employees in IPG’s internal surveys. Likewise, she says older job candidates will more often ask questions about the amount of ‘crazy hours’ they might be required to work at an agency, as opposed to younger candidates more concerned with coaching and career development.

While it’s tempting to hire those willing to more effort in order to advance, McCaughan wonders what the real motivation to hiring young is. “If you want people to show enthusiasm and energy I think you’ll find that people of all ages can do that. That’s not the factor. The factor is are you working people to death? One of the reasons why we have burnout and such a high turnover among young people… is frustration. They might have the energy of youth but they’re frustrated that they’re working, working, working and not getting anywhere.”

Our view: Older employees are more likely to be more selective in where they place their energies at work.

Older workers are overpaid

McCaughan feels the proverbial elephant in the rooms of adland is whether agencies are just hiring young people because they’re cheaper to hire.

Older employees are generally paid more. They also have more job experience and therefore tend to fill more of the senior roles. But are they really worthy of that thicker pay package? This one is hard to generalize. 

An Asia-Pacific population research report from Singapore economist John Bauer back in 1995 concluded that in Japan and newly industrialized economies “there are reasons to believe that seniority-based increases in earnings exceed increases in productivity.”  But a later study in 2010 from the Institute for the Study of Labor entitled “Are Older Workers Worthy of their Pay?” based on Portuguese workers concluded the opposite. 

Most agency HR directors will tell you that some older employees are worth their pay in gold, while others are not. If overpayment is pervasive, then surely the market will sort it out and we’ll see readjustments. 

Khan-Iltaf says it’s only in markets like Japan that age and experience are a necessity to earning higher pay. Elsewhere, the demand for skills and innovation in the marketing industry dictate that a younger candidate be paid equally to an older candidate with similar skills. “They can come in and command that,” she says. “In our market I don’t think [overpayment] is an issue at all.”

McCaughan, however, feels the stereotype is enough of an issue to harm the chances of those over-50s looking to be re-hired, or to take on part-time roles even with a pay cut.  He’s asked headhunters when they last put someone in their 50s or 60s in a junior role and the answer is always ‘never’. McCaughan feels recruiters may falsely assume senior candidates are looking for the same money.

But at MCG & Associates, Adam Toctan says senior employees simply are not looking for junior level jobs. “I don’t know any older worker who wants to take a pay cut unless they’ve been forced to take it” he says. And while his firm places jobs at all levels, they work with an abundance of senior managers.

“I’ve got a book of incredibly talented people at the moment who are in that slightly older generation, CEOs, MDs, agency heads all looking for work because their business has been making pay cuts… all looking for that same job.” He admits that older workers looking to be placed in even mid-level creative jobs are less likely to be considered.   

“We’re only looking at young people because they’re cheap,”  McCaughan says, noting it’s a misguided strategy since older hires tend to stick around longer, causing less upheaval.

Our view: Some companies may overpay older employees at their own financial peril, but given the challenges facing the industry, most firms cannot afford to overpay young or old.

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